As a Floridian, I am very familiar with some of the best spots to dine, play, and stay in Florida.
A Step Back in Time
The history of the city of St. Augustine stretches over four hundred and fifty years, making it a great place to vacation for anyone interested in Florida's past and colonial-era living. Since I enjoy history, I was glad when the opportunity arose for my mother and me to spend a few days there exploring the city. St. Augustine is situated beautifully along the breezy Atlantic coast of Florida, a fact which adds to its appeal as a vacation spot.
We stayed on the mainland by Matanzas Bay, giving us easy access to all of the sights both in the city and on Anastasia Island across the bay. The most memorable part of St. Augustine is the pedestrian-friendly old city. Walking through the narrow streets full of buildings dating back a hundred years or more gave my mother and me the feeling of being transported back to an era when life was quieter and less rushed.
When to Visit
The best time to pay a visit to St. Augustine is between the end of February through the beginning of June. Florida is beautiful at any time of the year, but it can get rather hot during the summertime, which can lessen your enjoyment of outdoor activities.
The fall and early winter can be nice as well, but the weather can be a little more unpredictable during those months; it can be hot late into the fall, or there can be a sudden cold snap that sends temperatures down into the thirties or forties during the early winter.
In the late winter and springtime, the weather is less likely to be subject to this uncertainty, and one does not have to worry about hurricanes. The main drawback is that this time is the height of the tourist season, so the city may be more crowded, and lodging prices most likely will be higher than during the rest of the year. My mother and I went in early May, and the city had a lot of visitors, but not too many visitors.
We were there during the middle of the week, which also made a difference; the only crowds we had to deal with were a few school groups on field trips at the Castillo and the Spanish Quarter.
A Home Away From Home
A key element of any vacation is finding a place to stay that makes you feel at home. One of the best ways to feel "at home" is to stay at a bed and breakfast. St. Augustine is full of these lovely little establishments, some housed in historic buildings and others in newer structures, but each one charming nonetheless.
I chose the Casablanca Inn by the Bay for our stay in St. Augustine. The Casablanca Inn is a bed and breakfast establishment in a restored 1914 Mediterranean-revival building set right across the road from Matanzas Bay. The inn features twenty-two rooms and suites divided between the main house, the carriage house, and a smaller building hidden away in a garden behind the carriage house. The rooms all have their own bathroom and most have their own porch area if you want to sit outside and relax. You may choose to sit either in the dining room or on the front veranda for breakfast each morning.
We opted for the veranda since the views of the bay early in the morning were gorgeous. The breakfast was ample and delicious, and it rotated in selection each day in order to keep things interesting. The inn also features a small bar that is open to the public in the evenings. The music and talking do not extend too far into the night, so it should not be a bother if you stay there unless you like to retire early. In that case, I would just opt for a room in the carriage house or the garden house since they are in separate buildings.
A perk at this inn is getting a parking space in their parking lot; parking spaces are hard to obtain in the historic district, so this is an amenity that should not be taken for granted. Staying in the historic district, in general, allows you to not have to drive your car very much. Many of the attractions, shops, and restaurants are located within this area, making it easy to walk or bike to them if you are staying nearby.
Dining in St. Augustine
Many restaurants, both classy and casual, occupy the downtown area of St. Augustine. Some of the places we tried I read reviews on beforehand to make sure we were going to a place that served a good meal, but others were chosen spontaneously and turned out to be wonderful, too.
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Schmagel's Bagels (69 Hypolita Street)
Going to Schmagel's Bagels our first day in St. Augustine was one of those spur-of-the-moment choices we made, and it was not a mistake. The bagels in this little eatery tucked away on Hypolita Street are made on-site and are delicious. My mother and I both had bagel sandwiches that were excellent. Schmagel's Bagels is open daily (except Wednesdays) for breakfast and lunch at reasonable prices.
A1A Ale Works (1 King Street)
A1A Ale Works has a trendy, creative menu that offers diners a chance to try what the restaurant called "New World Cuisine", which they define as dishes incorporating the foods and flavors of the Americas and the Caribbean. The "Ale Works" part of their name comes from the fact that they brew their own beers right there in St. Augustine.
We both had a bowl of their A1A Ale and Cheese Soup and a side of grilled vegetables. The soup was a fantastic mixture of one of their house-made beers, cheddar cheese, barley, and onions, and was great eaten along with the crusty pieces of bread served with the meal. A1A Ale Works is open every day for lunch and dinner at mid-range prices.
Cafe del Hidalgo (35 Hypolita St. #101)
Cafe del Hidalgo, while primarily a lunch spot, offers some great food. The panini sandwich I had there was well-made, and my mother had an excellent salad. We came back later in the day to try out their homemade gelato, and we were very impressed. It was creamy and delicious, and came in so many flavors that it was hard to choose just one! I finally had to settle for a dish of gelato that was half strawberry and half chocolate, because the samples they let us try made me want both flavors. This gelato was so good I had to stop there just to have some when I was passing through the area on another occasion. Cafe del Hidalgo is open daily for lunch, dinner, and after-dinner treats at moderate prices.
Scarlett O'Hara's (70 Hypolita Street)
Located in an old 19th-century house decorated with pictures of their namesake character, Scarlett O'Hara's serves tasty barbecue and Southern-style food. We went to this spot for a late lunch and had some great sandwiches there. This restaurant features tables out on their porch for those who enjoy the ambiance of eating outdoors. Scarlett O'Hara's is open daily, serving lunch and dinner at moderate prices.
Claude's Chocolate (6 Granada Street)
While not really a restaurant, the chocolate sold at this shop is good enough for one to be tempted to make a meal out of it. My mother and I tried their truffles and chocolate-covered espresso beans, and both were absolutely wonderful. The creamy homemade chocolate candies at Claude's are made in St. Augustine. They are open seven days a week.
A Window to the Past: Activities in St. Augustine
St. Augustine has many activities and attractions to offer to its visitors. As I have mentioned, historical places are the main feature there, and those are what I mainly went to see.
The sites we went to were all interesting in their own way, with each giving the story of St. Augustine from a different perspective. (I have also included in the weblinks section at the end a couple of other worthy attractions that I did not have time to visit, but would definitely take the time to see if I was ever visiting the area again.)
The St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum
The St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum was one of the highlights of our visit to St. Augustine. Built in 1874 on Anastasia Island to take the place of a previous, crumbling lighthouse, the current lighthouse is a Florida coastal landmark. A climb to the top of the lighthouse offers exquisite views of the Atlantic Ocean, the barrier islands, and the mainland. A camera is a must when visiting here!
There is a keeper's house next to the lighthouse which contains a museum with a detailed history of the lighthouse, as well as other maritime history pertaining to the area. An enjoyable hiking trail also winds through the museum grounds. Please note that children must be 44" tall to be able to climb the tower, as there are no safety features installed; carrying a child up the tower stairs is not permitted. The lighthouse and museum are open daily throughout the year, with the exception of a couple of major holidays.
The Oldest House Museum Complex
The Oldest House Museum Complex in St. Augustine is home to a small museum, gallery, colonial garden and kitchen house, a colonial-era house, and (as the name implies) the oldest house still standing in St. Augustine. The main floor of the oldest house was built in the early 1700s, during the time St. Augustine was being re-built by the Spanish settlers after it had been burned to the ground by the British. The house saw a number of different occupants, one of whom later added the upper story of the house.
The other house on the property was also built during the 18th century. The houses and the museum offer insights into the history of St. Augustine through the centuries and should be on the itinerary of anyone who wants to learn about the settlement of the area. The complex is open all year except for a few major holidays.
Castillo de San Marcos
The premier attraction in St. Augustine is the Castillo de San Marcos, and it is well worth a visit. The coquina-limestone structure was initially completed in 1695 by the Spanish in order to protect the city from invaders.
The fort has had several different owners and names over the centuries since then, and each set of occupants has left their mark on the structure. There are exhibits in each of the rooms inside the fort which tell a part of this colorful story.
You may walk along the tops of the walls and around the outer defense works as well as tour the inside to get a complete picture of this massive structure. A tour of this fort is a good way to learn about military history and how and why forts were built the way they were built. The Castillo is open daily throughout the year, closing only for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The Colonial Quarter
The Colonial Quarter is a living history museum located in the middle of the old city. Actors dressed in period costumes give talks and working examples of different occupations that existed during the Spanish Colonial era to give you a better understanding of what life was like at that time. Exhibits include a woodworker's shop, tanner's shop, and colonial home. This is an excellent place to take children, though it is formatted so that even adults will enjoy a visit. The Spanish Colonial Quarter is open daily throughout the year.
St. George Street
Shopping in the historic old city gives you a chance to feel like a colonist visiting the market, especially along the pedestrian-only stretch of St. George Street. There is a colorful variety of little boutiques, candy shops, and antique stores lining the roads of the downtown area, many of which offer unique items for you to take home with you after your travels.
A few shops have their own little bit of history to share if the owner knows about the past life of the building. One such place is the Old Drug Store on the corner of Cordova and Orange streets. Combining history with a functioning store and café, this establishment allows you to see what a drugstore was like in the 19th century—they even have antique bottles of medicines and other remedies in the old display cases.
Truly, the best way to take in the old city of St. Augustine is to just park and take a jaunt up and down the streets. Be aware that if you do drive around the downtown, there are several streets that are one-way, or become one-way along certain stretches.
Finally, no walk around the downtown would be complete without a sunset stroll on the walkway that runs along Matanzas Bay; make sure you find time to do this at least once while in St. Augustine!
Below is a list of my personal recommendations for places to stay, dine, and visit in St. Augustine, Florida.
Places to Stay
- Casablanca Inn on the Bay Bed and Breakfast
Beautiful historic bed and breakfast set right across the road from Matanzas Bay.
One of the best ways to find a good bed and breakfast in the St. Augustine area.
- St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra, and the Beaches Florida Official Visitors Site
Useful links for finding accommodations in St. Augustine available on this site.
Places to Dine
- Schmagel's Bagels
A great little bagel shop tucked away in St. Augustine's historic district.
- A1A Ale Works
Restaurant and brewery offering creative cuisine sure to please any palate.
- Café Del Hidalgo
Great sandwiches, salads, and gelato within walking distance of the waterfront.
- Scarlett O'Hara's
Southern-style food served in a Gone With the Wind-themed restaurant.
- Claude's Chocolate
The perfect place to pick up a sweet piece of St. Augustine to take home.
Places to Visit
- St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum
Beautiful lighthouse overlooking St. Augustine and its environs.
- Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
Historic Spanish fort built in the late 1600s.
- St. Augustine Historical Society - Oldest House Museum Complex
The oldest house in St. Augustine.
- The Colonial Quarter
A living history museum set in the heart of the historic district.
- The Lightner Museum
Historic art and artifacts housed in the lovely former Hotel Alcazar.
- The Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse
Colonial schoolhouse provides a picture of school days as they happened in the past.